The Masculinity Problem: a delicate truth

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This is rather different to the usual politics I write about, but when lives are at risk, we need to talk about false and outdated expectations of men and women in society.

You must have a career. You will have a family. You have to step up and become the breadwinner.

This is the message. 

76% of all suicides in the UK are that of men. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 35.  Men are three times more likely to become alcohol dependent than women. Male attainment in school is consistantly falling year-on-year, with a male-female gap of 8.8% occuring for 2014 GCSE students in England and Wales.

This is the truth.

Most boys play off one another’s masculinity. You can see it everywhere from a primary school playground to the business rooms of central London. We challenge eachother to surrender our self-identity and become numb to emotion. It is, we are told, the route to success, a way to prepare for a hardened life ahead.

But in the end, we boys are lied to. We lie to each other. ‘Emotions mean nothing’ we’re told. Immediately, we’re stripped of the ablity to express thought, ideas and react to our surroundings. At such a young age, we’re clueless, defenceless and met with the cold demand  to ‘man up’ whenever we break this code of emotional silence.

Is this really how boys and young men ought to live? Surely, there’s a better alternative?

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Heracles: a Greek symbol for masculinity

In truth, masculinity is a club. There are set rules and expectations, we are judged by fellow members who retaliate, physically and verbally, whenever we do anything that may cause them to question their own identity. This way, the club stays together. The common surrender of self-identity survives.

Over time, boys learn to police the emotions of others – often those younger and weaker than us. We get a kick out of doing so. Apparantly.

Masculinity is fine – necessary even. It’s a product of social interaction. But when it creates such a tense environment of impossible expectation, undesirable goals and forced lives, it becomes something dangerous. Unknowingly, we match the social pressures against us by being a danger to the mental wellbeing and confidence of others.

In the UK, attacks against women, young men, ethnic minorities and members of the LGBTI community are on the rise. All around us, society is thankfully – albeit gradually – removing the ‘traditional’ role of men as the main provider for the family. The idea of a financially successful women or a same-sex couple starting a family of their own questions the limited and grim outlook so many of us boys are encouraged to adopt in our early childhood.

Slowly, we are as individuals, able to publically challenge an idea that has reigned unopposed in some form since humans first emerged. The kneejerk response? Shut that opposition down. Protect yourself from self-enlightenment of your own identity of who you are and who you aspire to become. Why? Because it’s the masculine thing to do. It’s all you’ve been taught of course.

When someone expresses a public dislike for two men holding hands, raising a family or getting married, surely it’s a call for help? At their root, that person is expressing a dislike at the fact their perception of the world is wrong and so is their perceived role in it.

They are not disgusted at the couple, but rather their vulnerability to the many lies told throughout their lifetime about identity, role and respect.

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Recently, I’ve noticed a bizarre response towards the growing crisis in mental health issues through an attack on the British feminist movement. Most prominent, is the development of the ‘manosphere’ – yes that really is a thing – a community campaign to ‘protect men against the evils of a society controlled for and run by women‘. Now clearly, this is the wrong response. I know this as a man. I know this as a feminist. But it is an interesting form of protest against the existing situation. A growing movement of men are turning against women and blaming them and the long fight for women’s liberation in Britain – in art, at work, at home and in wider society – for their own economic and hierarchical demise.

The idea that men must be the economic providers in the home is rubbish. It’s never been the case.

Instead, the threat to the further deterioration of men’s mental health issues is not women but austerity. From 2010-2016, under David Cameron’s leadership, real term cuts of 8% were made to budgets of mental health services across Britain. During this time, demand for these services increased by 20%. Infact, as of January last year, mental health, although making up 23% of the illnesses treated by the NHS, received a small 13% of its annual budget. In other words, there was an £11bn funding gap.

The idea that men must be the economic providers in the home is rubbish. It’s never been the case. Over the centuries, most families in Britain and around the world were too impovorished to even have the option of one parent remaining at home. Instead, it was a concept devised by and exclusively avaliable to the narrow middle-classes.

This disequilibrium of expectation on men and women is creating an excess of pressure for box sexes, it restrains productivity, creates illegal wage inequality and works to increase the number of mental health cases around the world.

But rather than reflecting a ‘natural’ behavioural norm we have inherited through generations gone, our common concept of masculinity is infact the cause and controller of our behaviour, growing in intensity with every new generation. Masculine ‘traits’ for example, are the basis for capitalism – a system which emerged from feudalism and mercantilism – theories which themselves encourage the ego and recognise oppression of others as a demonstration of man’s physical hold over the world. Self-greed and the maximisation of profit  all contribute to the idea that men must be the ‘breadwinners’ for a secure family unit. Capitlism is simply the collective result of this attitude.

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The New York Stock Exchange: a hugely male-dominated industry and a symbol of capitalist power.

For all men seeking to find their masculine identity, unregulated capitalism serves in two ways. First, it facilitates the opportunity for wealth accumulation. Here, status is found and men and women are able to compare their success against one another numerically. Second, capitalism allows men and women to obtain physical posessions – houses, cars and jewelry – which become symbols of power and authority to their counterparts. It gives men and women the wealth that allows them something another man or woman desires. This creates the medium for exchane which is afterall, the basis of the capitalist system.

But masculinity goes further than capitalism. It’s at the centre of almost all our news stories. Everything from expansionist wars to violent coups to economic crashes following excessive risk taking. Nearly always led by men, for men and for the promotion of men. Proponents of capitalism explain how the system encorporates our natural instincts and succeeds only on that basis. They’re right. It does encorporate a set of instincts – just the wrong ones, developed in childhood through an environment cluttered with references to need, greed and over consumption. Unregulated Capitalism never for example, fosters empathy, social cohesion or respect for others, the self or the natural environment. And that’s why its failing in its current, uncorrected and extreme form. There has been a miscalculation of our ‘natural instincts’ into the system.

So what’s to change? How can we address the issue of masculinity and from that, the incredible growth-rate of mental health issues amongst boys and men? How do we restore self-confidence and break down the social pressures which force onto us, expectations of ‘male norms’?

First, there has to be a change to our understanding of what it means to be ‘masculine’. No longer can anyone expect a man to become the sole provider for a family. Our language must change. This means divising a realistic expectation of what men and women should strive towards. But what is this? Whatever they want to.

In 2015, the coalition introduced the Shared Paternity Leave Scheme (SPL/ShPP), to help new families have control over how much time each parent, if they choose to, takes time off work. The aim of the scheme was to encourage mothers and fathers to share responsibilities, making it easier for women to go back to work after giving birth. However, in April 2016, it was reported that just 1% of new fathers take up SPL.

It seems that although the legal substance is appearing, societal pressures are preventing men and women from using this opportunity. The problem of masculinity has not been dealt with.

Until our language, perception of masculinity and terrible bias against female leadership in business and politics changes – the problem of masculinity will continue to grow and claim more lives.

Start with yourself. Should YOU change your use of language around the subject?

We’d all be better off if we did.

 

Europäische Union, Evropská unie, União Europeia (Chapter One)

 The democratic, federal, inclusive and socially-progressive union of the future.

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The European Union consists of 508 million citizens in 28 countries of 24 languages. Europe is by far the strongest economy in the world with a collective productivity of $18.339 TRILLION. This European Union of, 2016 is progressive, powerful and inventive.

But that’s not the whole story. The EU is a target for financial corruption, the effects of climate change and terrorism. Unfortunately, internal bureaucracy prevents the creation of a reformed model – a model which is designed to tackle problems which ten years ago, did not exist. But before we can discuss how Europe can change, we must ask ourselves:

What is Europe’s objective and why are we there?

For some, the aim is to create an informal trading block whilst others are in favour of total social, political and economic integration between nation states.

I am a European not for Britain. I have never suffered with or been interested in cheap jingoism that so easily stimulates the passion of the Eurosceptic right.

For me, it’s responsible and makes practical sense for Britain to play an active part in the life of the European family.

But regardless of your position, it seems evident the EU needs to become more federal with power flowing freely from the European Parliament and down through national assemblies, regional councils and devolved local government.

The common Eurosceptic argument is that by working with the EU, Britain is ‘handing over its sovereignty to Brussels’. Firstly, sovereignty is not a quantitative measurement. Secondly, we are not ‘handing’ it over. That would suggest there are absolutely no benefits to this seemingly pointless exercise. Instead, we need to change the language used around the ‘European question’. This could be Britain’s first major reform.

In working with other countries, Britain is cooperating with foreign police forces to track down suspected criminals on the run. This ‘handing over’ is keeping us safe. By working with our European partners to tackle climate change, we are protecting our common environment. This again, keeps us safe. Europe’s threats do not function within the narrow prism of nationalism, so why should we? Air pollution, financial corruption and disease ignore borders. In this case, governments must do the same on the subject of European integration.

Community. A word lost in recent discussions within political, press and public circles. This is exactly why the EU was formed. After a second international conflict in twenty nine years that left hundreds of millions for dead, ministers began discussions to form what was at the time – near impossible.

A PEACEFUL AND COOPERATIVE EUROPE.

By the time the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957, ministers had realised that post-war Europe should accommodate space for its governments to talk. After all, the result of half a century of little negotiation resulted in two conflicts on an unimaginable scale.

For me, the EU should fulfil the following:

  • Improve the social, cultural and economic quality of life for all citizens
  • Invest in the education and understanding of Europe’s many cultures
  • Protect the rights of workers around the continent
  • Reduce public and private corruption
  • Enforce democratic principles within its borders
  • Keep Europeans safe from internal and external threats of all forms

Problems with a ‘two-speed’ Europe

Imagine – member states agree to form a ‘two-speed’ Europe. Immediately, our ‘Eurocrats’ would turn to the French President and German Chancellor to lead this new block. Businesses would be forced to shift jobs and investment to these areas, ever worsening the north/south divide which is already all too evident. The result? The EU would instantly turn from a community into a club. Who would permit the transition of an EU state from one grouping to another? Would this give the northern countries even more influence over their southern ‘partners’? Would the European Parliament undergo the same ‘botch’ we here in Britain suffered under David Cameron’s introduction of ‘English-votes-for-English-laws’? How would this strengthen ties within a community already beginning to fray around the edges?

Effects of the existing system: 

NATIONAL LEADERS STEAL VICTORIES:
If the European Central Bank (ECB) or European Commission grant additional loans, lower Eurozone interest rates or direct European Commission money to one particular region, national leaders will go home and claim these achievements as entirely their own.

NATIONAL LEADERS ARE SUSCEPTIBLE TO UNFOUNDED PATRIOTIC ATTACKS
Because national leaders are only responsible for their home countries, our European Council consists of twenty eight politicians having to fight solely in the ‘interests’ of the country they represent. Suddenly, the concept of shared duty and companionship are forgotten.

It is also unfortunate that such language is so often used by our Prime Minister…..

When travelling to Brussels, David Cameron is ‘forced to make demands‘. Here, he reports of how he ‘told‘ other EU officials what ‘he wanted‘. Already, these talks sound too much like a messy divorce case whereby both sides are operating under the assumption that the-winner-takes-all. This is infact inaccurate, unhelpful and counterproductive.

Here’s another example…

So what’s the plan?

For Britain: Firstly, Britain should call for an overhaul of Europe’s bureaucratic workings. But in order to do this, we must finally organise our own (lack of) democracy. One start would be a written constitution. It’s all very well for the Prime Minister to talk about repatriation of powers. But who are these powers actually going to? With no single constitutional document, we have absolutely no clue.

For Europe: Clearly, no country can be ‘kicked out’ of the Eurogroup. Why?  The Euro was established at the turn of the millennium as a symbolic achievement to decades of division. It cannot collapse after just sixteen years of life. Brussels would more likely favour debt cancellation or even wealth redistribution across the Eurozone area as an alternative to currency exclusion.

With little sign of Alexis Tsipras’ SYRIZA government facing defeat and s stalemate of talks to form a coalition government in debt ridden Spain, something has to give.  To some, the answer is ‘Brexit’. For others, taking back sacks of power is the better way forward. Either way, Europe will look very different by the New Year.

The question is whether we will be peering in or looking out.

Why 2016 will not be a Tory Wonderland

Why was 2015 the ‘Goldilocks Election’? Why can’t Osborne succeed as Conservative leader? Why will the Tories be forced to return to the dirty politics of the 1980s?

As 2015 draws to an end, the Prime Minister is sure to look back on the past twelve months with pride. Since January, the Tory leader has managed win a spectacular Conservative majority, secure a European referendum, control his backbenchers, effectively disband UKIP and outlast his two main election rivals. Additional internal conflict within the opposition benches has caused an apparent rise in the Tory party’s approval ratings – sometimes hitting the low 40s – unheard of during an era of recession.

But how is this possible? How has Cameron managed to end the year as the clear victor?
With the Scottish Conservatives having performed relatively badly in 2010, the Prime Minister had little to lose from the SNP’s sweep of the north. Nicola Sturgeon formed a nationalist ‘coup’ with the aim of thumping Cameron’s government at its weakest point – its lack of humanity. Instead, the ‘Scottish lion roared’ [1] (to quote former SNP leader Alex Salmond) and directed its fire towards Cameron’s only alternative – Labour leader Ed Miliband.

Fear with the economy, the increasing influence of the media and Tory myths also had parts to play in providing Cameron with a working majority of twelve MPs.

2016 is likely to be Cameron’s last full year at Number 10. From then, he is guaranteed a smooth exit from office – passing on his role to a loyal colleague such as Home Secretary Theresa May or (more likely) to school friend George Osborne. Gone are the bitter days of Ted Heath, Michael Heseltine and Margaret Thatcher.

Or so the Tories would like to think.

Unlike most of Cameron’s premiership, it may transpire that 2016 is the year when dirty Tory politics returns – the kind of image the Prime Minister has spent his decade at the top trying to hide.
Below are a string of issues which may stump leading Tories in the coming months:

Europe
   In the face of an apparently divided opposition, the Conservatives have kept together – desperate not to fall into the lengthy ideological debates which have engulfed the Labour Party for over seven months.
The Tory leader is keen to unite his cabinet around one central issue – the topic which has plagued the party for decades – Europe.
Even though Cameron is yet to declare which way he will vote, it’s pretty clear he doesn’t want the ‘out’ campaign to win. No matter how many times he strides into European summits attempting to appear the reformer, challenger and alpha male, we all know he does not want to leave office as the ‘isolationist’ Prime Minister that ordered Britain to ‘retreat’ from the world. He’s too worried about his legacy to do something as careless as that.

Although every general election is different, Conservatives are likely to examine the role played by key ministers in the run up to the vote of 2015. Party members will want to know the candidates that can successfully carry an image of modern ‘compassionate Conservatism’ and the ones who cannot.

I believe the Tory party won a majority for three reasons:

  • The public’s perception of Ed Miliband as a potential Prime Minister
  • The SNP
  • The existing First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) electoral system.

Like most elections, victory was formed from the collapse of the alternatives. For the Conservatives, the conditions were just right. It was a Goldilocks election.
A Prime Minister and Chancellor who remain loyal and trusting friends is a rarity in British politics – especially within Conservative politics. Most see this as the crux that will fulfil Osborne’s true ministerial ambitions.
Infact, most pundits predict Cameron’s iron chancellor and Etonian schoolmate will become Tory leader and Prime Minister. The Fixed Term Parliament Act of 2011 means that (if elected), Osborne will have over two years to mould his type of Conservatism before standing for election in 2020.
So far, Osborne (like Cameron) was able to shrug off his family background and education without significant damage to his reputation. But a more recent history is likely to stick with the frontrunner. Osborne is the face of 21st century austerity and is well known for missing his financial targets. But unlike Cameron, Osborne would not enter the leadership race as a youthful outsider. Having accepted the title of First Secretary of State, he is effectively the Prime Minister’s de facto deputy. But even this ministerial appointment may be too little too late for the political operator.
Beyond the recession, after the frontbenchers retire and after a new generation of Tories join the fray, George Osborne will be remembered as the Conservative chancellor that privatised, cut and shrank industry and like no other before him. He will live on as the patron saint of Conservatism – but for all the wrong reasons.

Ignore the polls, they tell you nothing
It’s worth noting that a year before his election as Tory leader in 2001, Iain Duncan Smith placed 6th in Ladbrokes’ leadership polls. Michael Howard was 7th in 2002 and Cameron 3rd in 2005. [2]

2016 is likely to be a significant year for the Conservatives. A quick transfer of power seems unlikely for a party that has recently become Britain’s slickest electoral machine. Alliances will be formed and secret deals made – that’s for sure. What remains unknown is what kind of Conservatism will enter the race for Number 10 in 2020.

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-north-east-orkney-shetland-32641223
[2] http://news.ladbrokes.com/politics/tory-leadership-contests-a-betting-history.html

Merkel & Me: A strange relationship

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   Angela Merkel – a woman with a political career which to most of her contemporaries remains a distant dream. Having served as the first female German Chancellor and leader from the Eastern side of the border, she is seen by most as commander of the EU. She has outlasted all of her companions in wider Europe, the G7 and Germany (with the exception of her finance minister and former CDU leader Wolfgang Schäuble). A rather dogged figure, Merkel has dominated post-war German politics like no other. She is not loud and eccentric. That is not her style. Instead, she likes numbers, excessive detail and fact. Her ten years in office have marked economic expansion, an international banking crisis, the near collapse of the Euro, political revolution in Greece and more recently, a refugee crisis of more than one million people. Throughout this period, she remained the quietly confident statesperson, a position which has gained her credit and respect from the outset.
Even today, Merkel is the brute force that glues Europe together. Without her negotiation skills and willing to compromise, the world would undoubtedly be a very different place. Even at the worst of times, she has kept firm to the belief in a more integrated Europe, a principle which is not widely shared by other north European conservative leaders.
Having made Germany the highest performing European economy, she has redefined Europe’s identity, but to a cost. Although expected to run for a fourth term, the question of Europe’s futures remains in the balance. After all, who will succeed Merkel as guard of the union?
Although the Christian Democratic Party is still riding high in the polls, the refugee crisis has eaten into her long-standing popularity with the German people. Having served as Party leader for 15 years, her influence stretches far beyond the borders of Germany.
As a socialist and enthusiastic pro-European I struggle of what to think of Mrs Merkel. Even though I agree with her that Europe should remain more integrated both economically, socially, politically and culturally, her persistence with widespread austerity measures have split the continent in two. This raises doubts over her priorities. Does she value the sound German economics of budget surpluses over a united Europe? Thankfully, this is yet to be tested.
After her spectacular third election victory two years ago, there was a sense of relief from all corners of the continent. Europe had been saved or at least given a while longer to live. I too felt bizarrely pleased that she had scraped passed the line. There I was, thankful that a Conservative candidate – the one peddling the giant wheel of austerity – the leaders which would crush any left-wing ‘coup’ had been returned to office for another four years (albeit as part of a grand coalition).
This year, Merkel has only faced one real challenger – Alexis Tsipras. He too had been elected dependent on a coalition agreement. Finally, Mrs Merkel faced a young and fresh faced new Greek Prime Minister alongside his leather jacket wearing finance minister Yanis Varoufakis. Together, the two Greeks were the closest the European left had to Merkel. They both raised the question of democracy and the union – an issue Merkel’s followers had managed to keep quiet for a number of years. Suddenly, Europe was facing an attack from both the far-left and far-right and as its de-facto figurehead, Merkel was effectively pushed to the front of a crowd of squabbling ‘Eurocrats’ to crush these political uprisings which until now, had failed to materialise. Although SYRIZA failed to damage Merkel’s reputation, it leaves the question of who will succeed her as Europe’s de-facto leader once she is gone.
It will come as no surprise that Merkel is likely to run for a fourth term, after the assumption she would duck out sometime before 2017 was proved wrong. To many ‘Eurocrats’, this is good news. Her mediation skills will be in great demand. Her austerity drive however, may kill off the south and it may finish off the union. The German election in 2017 will either send Europe to a painfully premature death or reboot it for the following decades to come. Whoever Germans choose as their next leader, will face a monumental task of restructuring a broken currency whilst fending off an evident attack from the far-right.
Like with most crises, we have to prepare. The left must put forward a candidate that must be at least half as effective of Merkel. Otherwise, I fear my support and that of other pro-Europeans for her continued leadership will accelerate the pace at which her government are trying to spread the idea of budget surpluses, large private sectors and free-market neoliberalism to other states. I consider these to be by-products of her belief in closer union and yet, these are by-products which can be made easily avoidable.

Sorry Liz Kendall but “doing a 1997” won’t work in 2020

During this year’s leadership election campaign, it was interesting to hear Liz Kendall speak about Tony Blair’s victory in 1997. Unfortunately, Kendall (the most ‘Blairite’ of the four candidates) incorrectly associated Labour’s landslide of ’97 with the privatisation-friendly small state policies which dominated that year’s election manifesto.
Blair’s project worked because it was a real alternative to eighteen years of harsh Conservative rule. It was led by a young and charismatic man who preferred ‘sofa-style politics’ and would often ask others to ‘call me Tony’. He had slick presentation skills and an agenda of meaningful reform – something which marked a clear break from the days of Michael Foot. But the 1990s was a different era – a time of spin doctors and great acting. This is exactly what the electorate came to loathe and what senior Labour figures failed to recognise.
Since 1997, the Conservatives too have kicked into life and reformed their ways. The seemingly disastrous leaderships (in electoral terms) of William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard forced a review of Conservative electoral strategy. Another leadership election passed and David Cameron emerged as the new and youthful commander with the aim of making the Conservative brand seem more compassionate. Sound familiar? The Tories actually based their 2010 campaign on ‘New Labour’. No wonder Cameron is thought of as the ‘heir to Blair’.  But even then, they failed. Cameron proved that the brand is dead – multiple long-term international wars, a world banking crisis and the expenses scandal ensured that.
Tony Blair was very much of its time. He finely tuned the party to suit the needs of ‘middle England’ and based his manifesto upon a successful neoliberal economy of the pre-millennium.
During his five year term as leader, Ed Miliband attempted to pull the party back towards the centre-left. He did so by making zero-hours contracts, employment and education spending the party’s main priority. There was however, one area which his team failed on spectacularly. The economy.
Between 2010 and 2015, Labour was desperately trying to find an alternative economic policy that wasn’t the well establish principles of Gordon Brown or the politics of ‘change’ during the Cameron coalition.
Between Labour’s election defeat and the party’s special conference in September, Tory Chancellor George Osborne was able to project the idea that Labour was somehow the root cause of the international banking crisis and collapse of the American housing sector. Clearly this is a lie, but for the Tories that didn’t matter. The seed had been planted and it stuck. ‘Labour had wrecked the economy’.
But how were the Tories able to outmanoeuvre the Labour beast? It was simple. They’d done their homework. Over thirteen years, they’d watched Labour transform from a battered protesting wreck into an election winning machine that could munch through marginal seats in their hundreds.
Liz Kendall and those who misleadingly call themselves ‘moderates’ fear Jeremy Corbyn. They suggest that his election marks the end of the Labour party. This is wrong. Instead, Corbyn’s premiership confirms the death of ‘New Labour’.
Over their own thirteen years of opposition, the Tories have built up a complex scheme of how to deal with Labour leaders. Such a scheme involves making Cameron more aggressive in his attempt at statesmanship – an example being his line about ‘terrorist sympathising’ opposition. So far, it’s been easy for them. Until now, Labour leaders seemed to come ready made out of a machine. They were Oxbridge educated, white, middle-class men who had served as special advisors after graduating, worked for various think-tanks and were elected in their early forties. Not that I blame them for being white, male or for having studied at Oxbridge. They’ve just become increasingly predictable.

So what can the Labour Party learn from the events succeeding Tony Blair’s leadership victory twenty one years ago?

  • The Party’s image is never fixed and must evolve over time to match the ever shifting objectives of opposition parties.
  • Miliband’s transition away from ‘New Labour’ isn’t complete. Corbyn has to finish the job.
  • A new leader does not always result in a new party. Ed Miliband was surrounded by too many Blairite aides and cabinet ministers to successfully push through his programme of party modernisation. By 2010, MPs were still dreaming of an impossible 2nd
  • Follow the will of the grassroots party membership – as hard as it sometimes may be – they know best.

Jeremy Corbyn is Labour’s only choice. His approach to daily politics attracts voters who moved towards UKIP, the SNP and the Greens and his ability to listen has doubled party membership in just three months.               Asking the party to retain a regenerated version of ‘New Labour’ is lazy and is an indicator of how party mandarins will not listen to the advice of their own members – the people that campaign on the doorstep – the heart of the party. I’m sorry Liz Kendall, but “doing a 1997” won’t work in 2020.